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​Your next PC may finally get high-speed Thunderbolt ports

Apple and Microsoft are psyched Intel will build Thunderbolt into its chips. That could help with VR, big monitors and fast external drives.

Apple's 2016 MacBook Pro has double-duty USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 ports.
Apple's 2016 MacBook Pro has double-duty USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 ports.
Stephen Shankland/CNET

Ever since 2011, Intel has been trying to get you excited about a high-speed port called Thunderbolt. Unless you bought a Mac or other premium PC, though, you probably didn't give it a second thought.

But that could change with Wednesday's announcement that Intel plans to build Thunderbolt support directly into its processors. That would mean PC makers get the technology at no extra cost, unlike today, when they have to buy a separate Thunderbolt chip from Intel. No wonder Apple and Microsoft are excited.

Why bother with Thunderbolt instead of plain old USB ports? Because there's lots you can do with a big fat data pipe that can transfer 40 gigabits of data per second, four times faster than USB's best-case scenario of 10Gbps.

Among the high-end PC tasks Thunderbolt is good for are using multiple 4K monitors, plugging an external video card to transform your laptop into a high-end gaming machine, pumping lots of video or photo files to an external drive, hooking up a docking station with network, video, power and USB ports, and connecting a virtual reality headset that needs to update its video instantly as you move your head around.

So yeah, that'd be nice for your next computer -- and nice for Intel, which desperately wants to find something to make you buy one. Just take this all with a grain of salt, though, because Intel has been promising for years to make Thunderbolt mainstream with little success.

Apple, Microsoft psyched about Thunderbolt

Apple, the first and still staunchest Thunderbolt ally, offered a rare endorsement. "We applaud Intel's efforts to integrate Thunderbolt technology into its CPUs and open it up to the rest of the industry," said Dan Riccio, Apple's senior vice president of hardware engineering, in a statement.

An Apple cable sports Thunderbolt's lightning-bolt icon.

An Apple cable sports Thunderbolt's lightning-bolt icon.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Microsoft is a fan, too. Thunderbolt has been largely a Mac phenomenon so far, with dongles and peripherals often mimicking the Mac's gray, bead-blasted aluminum styling. But Microsoft improved Thunderbolt support in the new Windows 10 Creators Update and plans more such work in future Windows versions, said Roanne Sones, Microsoft's general manager of strategy and ecosystem for Windows, in a statement. That could be helpful for all those dissatisfied Mac-using professionals thinking about moving to Windows machines.

Intel wants us to "envision a world with Thunderbolt 3 everywhere," and building it into a computer's main chip will help bring that about. So will Intel's announcement that it'll license the technology for free so Intel no longer is the exclusive Thunderbolt technology supplier -- something that could make Thunderbolt-powered devices like external drives, monitors, and docking stations less expensive. Another boost comes from the fact that the new Thunderbolt 3 version of the technology uses the exact same port as the new USB-C.

Temper your Thunderbolt enthusiasm

Although Thunderbolt may become more mainstream, though, Intel's "everywhere" is a big stretch. Don't expect it in your phone, tablet, car dashboard, TV, set-top box, internet router or digital camera. Nothing is going to dethrone USB for a long time when it comes to ubiquitous data and charging ports.

That's especially true now with new USB abilities. It's moving to 10Gbps data speeds, good enough for most needs today, and now can be a laptop's power jack just like it is on millions of phones.

Thunderbolt 3, piggybacking on USB-C ports, can also serve as a DisplayPort video connector. That's handy, too, but Intel said it won't support the more widespread HDMI video connections. You can always get a dongle, though.

"One last big caveat: Intel said it'll share the Thunderbolt technology with the industry in 2018, but didn't say when its Thunderbolt-equipped processors will arrive or whether all its chips will get the ability. "Expect to see some more information within the next year," spokeswoman Eileen Wong said.

Intel's move means you can get excited about some new PC abilities. Just don't hold your breath.

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